Sunday, June 14, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (**)

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon


The first half-hour of Sundance indie Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was close to unbearable to me. It's overwhelming supply of indie dramedy snark felt suffocating. Here's Nick Offerman inexplicably cuddling a cat. Here's the inspiring history teacher with forearm and neck tattoos. Here's a voiceover narration that allows you to see just how sardonic and self-deprecating our protagonist can be (hint: very). This is a movie that tries to incorporate aspects of satire and absurdity in what is ultimately a YA melodrama about leukemia. The mix doesn't always feel right. But once Dying Girl gets past its incessant need to impress us (there's a lot of movie posters in the background, close-ups of book spines, classic movies playing randomly on screens in front of a passing camera), it allows us to realize how charming its characters are. This is a film told from the point-of-view of a male high school senior, not exactly unexplored territory, but the film's tale of unorthodox friendship in the face of mortality has moments of poignancy and deliberate frankness that felt refreshing compared to most teenage dramas. The film itself hides behind an austere idea of what this film should be, but that veneer doesn't effect its actors, who give the film its most effective presence.

The 'me' referred to in the title is Greg (Thomas Mann), a detached high schooler who works very hard at trying to dissolve into the fringe at school, making sure everyone knows he exists while also making sure that his true self is concealed at all times. The muck of high school is torturous enough as it is, it could only be worse if he tried to place himself into one of the many cliques that he's meticulously broken his school into. His only friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), has been his closest companion since kindergarten, and Greg can't even bring himself to call him a friend - he refers to him as a co-worker. The odd pair (Greg is a privileged white kid with intellectual parents, Earl is a black kid from the poor side of town who's only family member appears to be an older brother with a ferocious dog) spend their time making parody short films based on classic cinema. Amongst their forty-two films is 'A Sockworth Orange' and 'Death in Tennis'. Despite the puns in the titles, the films seem more like love letters than jokes. That Greg uses what is obviously an exceedingly artistic mind for this activity is an example of how stunted he's become. He hasn't even applied to a college yet, despite the imploring of his mother (Connie Britton). Greg's father (Offerman) is a tenured professor who seems to get paid to stay home and watch movies in his robe. It's not exactly an atmosphere for cultivating pro-activeness.

Things change when Greg's mother informs him that a "friend" of his from high school has been diagnosed with leukemia. This girl, Rachel (Olivia Cook), is someone who Greg has spent very little time with, but his mother insists that he call her and hang out with her, to make her feel better. It's a strange request that the movie wants us to believe is not-so-strange. But alas, it's the film's set-up. Greg arrives at Rachel's house, where her boozy, highly inappropriate mother, Denise (Molly Shannon) boldly shows her gratitude and invites Greg to go up to Rachel's room. Rachel immediately spots the rouse, would rather not be comforted by someone she barely knows from school, especially someone who is as awkward as Greg. Despite it all, Greg does manage a few moments of sincere niceties, and the two begin to realize that they don't exactly hate each other's company. When Rachel meets Earl, he spills the beans about they're filmography, and Rachel is instantly interested. Embarrassed by the amateur, sophomoric standard of his movies, Greg would rather he and Earl's movies go unwatched, but Rachel proves persistent, and it isn't long before she becomes their biggest fan. Why does Rachel enjoy Greg's often inelegant company? Perhaps because he's the only one in their school who isn't giving her the cliched humble apologies. He's not telling her to be strong, to believe in God's plan, etc.

When Greg accidentally spills the beans about Rachel's illness to his history teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), and the news spreads around the whole school, Rachel gets overwhelmed with "support". When Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), the school's resident beautiful popular girl, approaches Greg to make a film for Rachel, he's hesitant. In a short amount of time, Greg has gone from invisible to required, he's finding himself now with responsibilities to other people. The young man who'd hoped to survive high school without any emotional attachments now has more than he bargained for. The film is based on the novel by Jesse Andrews (he also wrote the screenplay), and doesn't exactly try to hide behind the common tropes of these kinds of stories. It kind of just falls into them through blind chance. Andrews' story is striving to be Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky's brilliant Salinger-esque high school tale that felt because bold because it showed the high school tropes with frank reality. Dying Girl has a little bit of the same frankness, but it still relies on cancer - a loaded topic in any media form - to generate its emotions. Perhaps it's intentions are more clear in the book, but as a script, cancer seems too convenient. Both high school and terminal disease are hard enough, we don't need to display them as metaphors for each other.

The comparisons to Fault in Our Stars are obvious and probably more valid than Wallflower. There are several moments when Dying Girl seems to be openly antagonizing the previous film - I must say I was relieved to get through Dying Girl and not watch a scene where a girl with cancer makes out with a boy in the Anne Frank house. Dying Girl at times seems desperate to present itself as alternative, edgier viewing. It's view of death sharper, and more mature. I never got around to seeing Stars, but I can't imagine it being that much more sentimental than the more somber moments of Dying Girl, which calls for long, sustained periods of pressurized tearjerking. Don't get me wrong, Dying Girl earns its sadness, and it probably is a more honest portrayal, but it's still retrieving from the same well of previous, less earnest films. Both films are based on young adult novels and both use cancer as a storytelling device, but Fault in Our Stars is more clearly a love story. Dying Girl never quite makes that leap, though you can tell it wants to. It's another aspect of the film's need to impress - it doesn't do the one thing that its audience expects it to do: make it's main characters fall in love. I'll give the film credit for that. But the movie still exists in the alternate fantasy universe that these high school movies create where the goofy protagonist can't make any friends but still get asked to prom by the popular girl, where all the black characters are relegated to the "rough neighborhood" but race is never mentioned as a conflict, and where the problems of an inherently selfish teenage boy are put ahead of a young girl with a terminal disease.

I do think that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl works in certain capacities, mainly dealing with its main stars Mann, Cooke and Cyler. All three show a knack for comedic timing, and Cyler especially fills out a character that is essentially one-note on the page and turns Earl into what surprisingly becomes the logical center of the film. Mann and Cooke have bigger responsibilities. They have to deal with meteoric shifts in tone and maneuver around the "will they, won't they" nature of the story arc. That they never come together is a cutesy little inside joke that the movie lets you in on right from the start, but Mann and Cooke make it seem real. Mann, a young Matthew Modine lookalike, has a lot to play, but he tends to funnel it all into one direction: awkwardness. It works in this film. Cooke is probably too pretty for the role she's been given here - they basically She's All That her - but she plays off her own adorability, working with the fact that even the most beautiful people in the world are usually odd looking as teenagers. The concept of a young boy being forced by his mother to hang out with a girl with cancer seems like a bit of a stretch, but Mann and Cooke make you glad that the idea was contrived. In their performances, you can see the film's ambition to be truly about something, but too often the film's director gets distracted with letting you know more film references.

The film's director is Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who's filmmography is all over the board. His first film was a low-budget slasher film called The Town That Dreaded Sundown and he followed that up with this. He's directed a handful of episodes of Glee as well as a dozen episodes of American Horror Story. So there lies his interest: graphic horror and teenage drama. There are a lot of film references in Dying Girl, with many shots meant to replicate iconic ones from Hitchcock and Scorsese - there's even special attention made to Burden of Dreams a documentary about the hellish shoot Werner Herzog had on the set of Fitzcarraldo. Most of them were necessary enough, but when it came time for Gomez-Rejon to create his own imagery, his own vision was surprisingly sparse, showing a Steve McQueen-like formalism with his shots. For a film that goes out of its way to name-drop Stan Brakhage multiple times, it's not exactly blowing the doors off with its technique. But the film's formalistic qualities are amongst the movie's least-troubling - Gomez-Rejon is still early on in his career and has at least shown that he aspires to something that's visually interesting. Dying Girl is a film that tries to figure out what it is while it's playing in front of you, and that's the biggest problem. What are Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon doing in this film beside providing unneeded quirk? They take away from the time spent with Mann, Cooke and Cyler, and in this film, that's the worst crime.

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